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An Open Letter to Pastors During the 2020 Pandemic

Dear pastors,

I get it. The stress of 2020 is not only weighing on you from the normal personal levels, but the often-dysfunctional tendencies of your congregation members are being highlighted in particularly poignant ways right now. It’s a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” kind of year and you’re getting an earful about it at pretty much all times. Finances are tight, what used to be easy decisions are now difficult and contentious, and stress levels are through the roof. It’s hard and often unfair.

As you’ll probably know from various continuing education opportunities and personality tests used in training sessions (Myers Briggs, Enneagram, etc…), when people are stressed it becomes easy for our negative character traits to become prominent or take over our decision-making processes. In times like these, it’s easy to become reactive instead of proactive, hoping to put out the first few fires before the next few fires arrive. Because of these tendencies, the strength of your staff is of the utmost importance. Your staff can either work together to buoy each others’ ministries during this terrible time or they can become yet another fire to put out.

when people are stressed it becomes easy for our negative character traits to become prominent

As a music minister, I’ve experienced some wonderful leadership and friendships with pastors. I’ve also experienced some terrible leadership and relationships gone awry. Below is a list of things I hope you’ll take to heart from this music minister who has heard one too many stories of the pastor-musician relationships going wrong.

  1. Unless you’ve hired a total newbie, you can assume that your music minister is coming into the position having had experienced a bad pastor-musician relationship some time in their career. While this may not define them, there’s a history of being burned by pastors that many church musicians carry with them.
  2. We know you’re in charge and that you’re the boss. Seriously…if you have to tell your staff or music minister that you’re the boss, then something is already very very wrong with your leadership. We all know you’re in charge, but what we need right now is a leader, not a boss.
  3. 99 times out of 100 we know more than you do about music and have thought more deeply about church music and the congregation’s song than you ever will, and that’s the way it should be. If you’ve hired a music minister and find yourself making musical choices more often than not, then you need to step back and ask yourself why. The congregation needs you to be their pastor, not their music minister. That’s why you hired a music minister! When discussing music and worship, treat the conversations like those of two colleagues working as peers, not a boss and employee. If that is threatening to you, please see point #2 above.
    • Oh, and you can multiply this point by 1,000 if you hired someone with an advanced church music degree and you think your MDiv gives you more theomusicological training than them.
  4. Most people don’t know this, but we church musicians do: pastors are generally totally un-trained or inadequately trained in liturgy/worship. We know your secret…and we generally don’t tell anyone, but don’t try to pretend you know more about worship and liturgy than your average music minister because you probably don’t. Just like you would expect from you staff, do you homework, be humble, and work collegially. We’ll do the same.
  5. You know how you’re being expected to do tons of things you are unqualified and untrained to do because of the pandemic? Yeah, so is your church musician. They aren’t doing the job they were hired (or trained) to do right now…so love your neighbor as yourself.
  6. You know how church committees often want the professional services of someone qualified to be the pope but also want to pay minimum wage? Yeah, (if they haven’t already) they’re going to want to add a bunch of things to your church musician’s job description and pay them either less or the same as before the pandemic. Things like video editing and recording/mixing/mastering. Most church musicians have never been trained in any of those things and they are VERY different than other musical skills. Adding “video editing” to a job description without much thought may seem reasonable…but it’s not. Either leave it off or pay more.
    • Also, consider paying for continuing education for your church musician if you do add that expectation, because right now most of us are making this stuff up as we go along.
  7. You know how congregation members often wonder what you do with all that “free time” you have instead of doing what they want you to do? And you’re like…uh…hello, sermon prep! Yeah, musicians feel the same way when they’re paid for 4 hours of “work” because they only have a 2 hour rehearsal and 2 hours on Sunday morning. Uh…hello, prep and practice!

Your staff will have your back if you have theirs.

So, look. I understand you’re stressed. Just don’t take it out on your staff. Your staff will have your back if you have theirs. They’re probably on your staff because they have a passion and skill for ministering to the flock whom you love and shepherd. If you ask them to be on your team, 99% of the time they’ll jump on board and try their best to help in whatever ways they can. But if you micromanage and/or undercut their expertise, pay terrible wages, and criticize the work they do on things not in their job description or training….then you’re going to have problems. And you deserve them.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


21 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Pastors During the 2020 Pandemic”

  1. Ashton McMaster says:

    Beautifully and accurately written! I’ve just resigned a 12-year post because of many of these things. The powers that be just “suspended” my contract at the start of COVID. Churches need music now more than ever perhaps even more than the spoken word which I have always let go in the first place. Many years ago I’ve learned not to “turn the other cheek” in a church or “Christian” setting – – they’re not getting a second chance from me to bruise the other side! Thank you for this article – – I appreciate it! A. – – Canada

  2. Anne Saxon says:

    This article is spot on! I once had a minister who called his organist from his former church to ask about hymns! He actually told me that, and its was because he and the other musician were “old buddies”. I have lived so many of those things that you have written about and have been burned a lot.

  3. Well written and spot on. The cynic in my arc of experience tells me they very few pastors will read or care, but your song resonates profoundly. Thank you. Perhaps I am wrong.

  4. Beverly Howard says:

    Brian, so much truth, so well written.

  5. Bill Miller says:

    Oh my goodness, I can think of *lots* of clergy I’d like to send this to. But can’t/won’t for various reasons. Thanks for writing this!

  6. Ciara Douglas says:

    We in Ashbourne, Ireland have suffered & are suffering the same plight, at the hand of our Parish Priest! His refusal to meet with our Directors or us the Choir is frustrating & insulting. He has fired the Directors without any due process (as there is no valid reason to have done!); & has caused discord & dissent among the choir itself, essentially disbanding the wonderful ‘family’ we had. Lack of communication is so insulting & downright rude.
    Please God we will all rise from this sad, sad time stronger & more resilient.
    It is strangely ‘comforting’ to know we are not the only parish going through this pain.
    Thank you!

  7. Paula Vasey says:

    100% on target. Thank you for saying it.

  8. Iteke Prins says:

    Thank you for writing this!! You hit the nail on the head…(many times over). Thank you, thank you!!

  9. Bruce Williams says:

    My best working relationships have been with pastors who respect my knowledge in a collegial atmosphere – also pastors who have degrees in music or may have been an organist before being ordained (my current wonderful situation). The pastor, choir director and I have tried various options during this challenging time. None of these has been perfect. We’ve recorded together at safe distances, recorded separately and had an amateur computer/audio technologist (more knowledgable than any of us at least) “assemble” the service for broadcast. The church has continued to pay us all as we all try to do “something” to uplift the congregation as best we can during this difficult time. Working together, trusting each other brings out the best in each of us.

  10. Rory Cooney says:

    Excellent, Brian. You’re young… you will survive any “fallout” from negative reaction to your words. I thought you tried to be very balanced while trying to be truthful, like preaching to, say, a joint session of Congress on Mark 10:23-27.

  11. Richard Dennehy says:

    I think it is sad and a terrible loss to the congregation in Ashbourne that they will not have their Church choir singing those beautiful and uplifting hymns this Xmas. Shame on those who are the cause of this. They should be named and outed so their neighbours can see them for what they are. I better leave it at that.

  12. Chris Hoh says:

    Clear, constructive, true. Thanks, Brian. These are very challenging times for everyone, clergy included. No matter how hard others may wish, neither clergy nor musicians have magic powers to make the virus disappear or turn inexperienced folks into audio-video engineers. Heck, most musicians can’t even afford the basic equipment to start learning these skills.

  13. Peter Stickney says:

    Brian-Bravo for a well crafted article. I laughed out loud when you wrote “If you have to tell the staff your’e the boss, something is seriously wrong”—Yup! I am now a pastor and will always remember I am to lead the congregation-NOT micromanage the music. I hope that pastors reading this and decide to be angry will repent and get over a GIANT ego problem.
    Thank you Brian for a well crafted and timely piece!

  14. Betzy Elifrits Warren says:

    This blog post could not be farther off base. What a sad and inadequate understanding you have of the priestly function of pastors. I have met precious few music directors who had training in liturgy or worship, but I had plenty of training in it in seminary, and every ordained pastor in my denomination is required to have seminary coursework on liturgy and worship. In my denomination, pastors have all the authority in worship–and in virtually no other area of the functioning of the church. That doesn’t mean pastors shouldn’t be willing to work with music directors, by all means…but when it comes to worship and liturgy, the buck doesn’t stop with you, music director, it stops with the pastor…and I have plenty of experience with musicians who had no regard for worship or liturgy and who needed the pastor’s direction with music choices.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Oh my gosh, yes!! Our pastor of 2 years has been noticably out of his element, but not taking suggestions from seasoned staff with 5-10 years at this church. This was a problem before the pandemic and has not gotten better. Just trying to do my job and give grace. Not easy with someone on my toes. Luckily, the heft of the video-editing was taken on by an enterprising choir member who just sat down and figured it out with freeware! Then he taught me a good bit so we can share the load, and not overwhelm the “techy” person on staff who is also the youth and modern ministries director. Turns out most of the staff feels that the pastor isn’t doing enough of what he should be, and the members are seeing it too. How to respond when they ask what he is actually doing?

  16. Sherman Hesselgrave says:

    I know quite a few clergy with music backgrounds, and as both a church musician and an Episcopal/Anglican priest I have found them the most fulfilling to work with or for. I have also worked with church musicians whose insecurities made it almost impossible to collaborate because any and every music-related issue became a potential land mine. In my experience, it varies by denomination. My seminary (CDSP, Berkeley, CA) required both courses in music and liturgical theology. But that was the 80s, so things may have changed.

  17. Tom Huffman says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well written letter. Would that we could choose some particular pastors to read it. I served for three years with a pastor with a very fragile ego who constantly reminded us he was our boss and spoke about “my staff.” Certainly made us appreciate his team player predecessor even more.

  18. Rick Walsh says:

    I am so fortunate to have never had a difficult relationship with a pastor of a church which I was serving as a music director. But I have heard so many stories, I know it must not be uncommon. In my own experience, though, the only significant problem I have had in a church staff relationship in which I was in the subordinate position was with a music director who was apparently jealous of my work.

  19. Francesca De Luca Miami Shores Florida says:

    I wish I could have copied this and sent this in an email to our pastor who just moved up in rank to interim pastor free year at the Miami Shores Presbyterian Church Dania Florida 5 months later she pushed our guy over the edge an hour organist director handbell Etc quit. She had the nerve to try to write him up and evaluation.

  20. Chad Paul says:

    I am experiencing many of the problems outlined in this well-reasoned article. My compensation was severely cut over the summer, by over half. While I understand the need to watch budgets carefully, it was presented as a purely business matter, with no reference, then or since, to the personal impact. So much for “caring for our staff.” Also, I would like to address Betzy’s comment number 14. I understand that the liturgical buck stops with the clergy, but what do you do when the clergy dismisses any suggestion not their own, but then shifts the blame when things go wrong? One of my clergy didn’t impart some crucial information about a recent funeral, and when the singer and the family were upset, she refused to acknowledge her mistake, content that I got the blame. If only clergy had a little humility, or were a little less determined to reinforce their status as “top dog” in the church at the expense of anything else. I’m doing the only thing I can do: look for another job.

  21. Eric Thompson says:

    Right on! If pastors would just get their acts together there wouldn’t be any problems!

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